Michael Poole, AstraZeneca: iMed, taking a virtual approach to Neuroscience




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Video title: Michael Poole, AstraZeneca: iMed, taking a virtual approach to Neuroscience
Released on: October 12, 2012. © PharmaTelevision Ltd
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In this episode of PharmaTelevision News Review filmed at BioPharm America in Boston, Fintan Walton talks to Michael Poole, VP, Head, Neuroscience, Innovative Medicine at AstraZeneca
Business Model of AstraZeneca's Neuroscience research and New Virtual Innovative Medicines Unit
Fintan Walton:
Hello and welcome to PharmaTelevision News Review here at BioPharm America, in Boston in September 2012. On this show I have Michael Poole, who is Vice President within the Innovative Medicines at AstraZeneca, but you also Head up the Neuroscience, Innovative Medicines unit here in Boston, welcome.
Michael Poole:
That's correct. Thank you.
Fintan Walton:
So Mike, the first thing of course I've just described a little bit about what your function is there, you are Head of Neuroscience, but may be you could just give us a little bit of the history of Neuroscience research within AstraZeneca and how that's changed to this so called New Virtual Innovative Medicines Unit that you now head up here in Massachusetts?
Michael Poole:
Sure, happy to do that. So AstraZeneca have traditionally had a very substantial commitment to neuroscience over the years. Three very large laboratory facilities in Sweden, just outside Stockholm, and Montreal, also and in Wilmington, Delaware. Around two-years ago or so Astra announced the closure of the psychotherapeutics discovery site in Wilmington and there was a kind of a contraction of neuroscience research at that point. In addition to the sort of substantial bricks and mortar kind of investment that AstraZeneca had, there was a substantial monetary investment made in the field and over the years despite some very good science and despite a very substantial investment Astra unfortunately got no new drugs out of this investment. And so you know a year or so ago, a year and a half or so ago, the organization gave careful consideration to whether they should stay in neuroscience at all, and a lot of different models were considered to try to stay in neuroscience research and we still think there is a lot of value to be had there, we think there is a lot of unmet need and we think there may be a different way to actually go about it, that is going about neuroscience discovery and development to bring meaningful novel medicines to the marketplace. And so the company actually hit on this idea of trying to change this sort of large, fixed investment with a relatively small, flexible investment and to try to flip that and as to make the majority of the investment actually far more flexible and to enable us to be a little more nimble with respect to the way we set up partnerships, the way we enter and exit certain areas of research.
Fintan Walton:
So, the virtual component of this is adopting a business model where by most of the research now is done external, is externalized?
Michael Poole:
That's right, that's right. So the central structure of the group is that we have about 44, at peak will have about 44 people who are located both here in Boston and Cambridge, around Kendall Square, and also in Cambridge in the UK and we are split roughly let's say 30-70 between the UK and the US, in terms of size, and this group of scientists who are actually very, very experienced and comprise probably every kind of expertise that you need in the drug development value chain. Those people are focused on projects and focused on the developing partnerships with outside laboratories to actually conduct research from the point of target identification and target validation through to proof of concept.
Fintan Walton:
Okay.
Michael Poole:
And That's essentially the, that's the basic drill.
Fintan Walton:
Right, so you took some of the, you had a review of your neuroscience portfolio, you ditched a good amount of that but you've held on to some of those projects and those projects still now continue.
Michael Poole:
Correct.
Fintan Walton:
Within this new unit and is that research externalized now or is it still run within AstraZeneca?
Michael Poole:
So we are in a kind of a transition period for some of the projects that we retained from the original portfolio. A lot of the work will actually go outside, some of the things where it makes more sense for us to stay connected with AstraZeneca on completing those projects we've done but what we try to do is to take each project to a logical transition point and then make the decision you know should we fully externalize this or take advantage of some of the capability that exists within the company.
Fintan Walton:
Right.
Michael Poole:
And you know the flexibility and the ability that we have here is to actually make the decision ourselves about whether it makes more sense to send this out or to take advantage of a very strong capability that might exist within AstraZeneca itself. For example, we have an absolutely world class crystallography capability within AstraZeneca and there is no point in sending that outside, because we could get it done better inside. On the other hand there are other things that we can do faster and may be cheaper by going outside and certainly in a more flexible way as we see the need.
Fintan Walton:
Right, I suppose just looking at the budget component of this, is the budget the same or, have the resource has been allocated in a much more efficient way, are you actually gaining efficiencies in the way you're operating?
Michael Poole:
Well the goal was not to save money, necessarily, although you surely you know you surely will, the goal was really to flip this from a high fixed investment and low flexible investment to make it much more flexible. What we have done is to scale back the expectation for the portfolio overall and so our, but proportionally the investment is the same and it's just spent much less on fix buildings, and laboratories, and much more on collaborations.
Fintan Walton:
I suppose looking, it's interesting you chose neuroscience, because neuroscience is one of those areas which has a huge prize, in other words there is still a huge unmet clinical need out there, at the same time it's going to be innovation that's going to breakthrough into those specific therapy areas, so is it, it was natural then for neuroscience to be chosen to adopt this model?
Michael Poole:
Yes, I guess so. I mean as you said, I mean neuroscience is a pretty tough nut to crack and but I think that neuroscience probably benefits may be not more, but definitely benefits well from multiple external collaborations and from hitting the most cutting edge kinds of science that's going on both in academic laboratories, and also lets say in small biotech's or mid-sized biotech's and no one can do it all. But we find that I think now especially that if you really want to understand the biology and the biology and the difficulties in neuroscience really reside I think in understanding the biology then you need to be where those advances are being made and that's the point I think both of locating ourselves in Kendall Square in Cambridge and also in Cambridge, UK. There is no doubt that those are the sort of the epicenters of neuroscience and very basic neuroscience around the world.
Neuroscience portfolio and focussed areas
Fintan Walton:
Right, so let's define what do you mean by neuroscience, because obviously it's a broad church if we can use that term, so tell us what areas that you are focused in?
Michael Poole:
So we work now in neurologic disorders and psychiatric disorders , we are back in psychiatric disorders and we also work in analgesia research and really this probably it might be easier to find what we are not interested in than what we are interested in and suffice to say that we will give careful consideration to any indication that can return adequately for the company, that can provide an adequate return on investment and that might be much smaller kinds of indications than you know than has typically been the case. Traditionally and especially for the last let's say five-years or so AstraZeneca was interested really only in very, very large indications within neuroscience. The truth is that neuroscience except for some of those large indications the bulk of the disorders are they are boutique disorders they are very small but they are joined by I think by a common biology in many cases and so what we hope to do is to find the right patient through these therapeutics and see what we can do to expand beyond those small indication out to more populations.
Fintan Walton:
So going back to what you are not in, what have you more or less put on the shelf let's say in terms of interest?
Michael Poole:
I would say one of the main ones right now is, I would say first-line agents for a major depression, first-line agents for anxiety disorders because those are, although they aren't really, really well served now, it's pretty difficult to imagine in how you can develop a differentiated therapy. To flip that though on the population of patients who have a refractory depression and really quite severe depression we are very interested in that and in fact we have fairly exciting programs in that regard.
Alliance relationship and partnership strategy
Fintan Walton:
Okay so that's the area, what's obviously important for your for the model here is the alliances, well several things, one is to find the right science where the exciting stuff is going on, second is who your partners are going to be and obviously that brings in venture capital, possibly in funding that, but also then how do you, how important is the alliance relationship now, you've shifted a huge amount of the risk in terms of getting the work done on the alliance arrangements that you have with your partner companies.
Michael Poole:
So we are totally relying on our alliances now, that whether they be in academia or inside, we have alliances on the inside with other functional groups let's say, and also small companies. So when you are with small companies on the cutting edge well you are also necessarily with venture capital and that's not an uncomfortable place to be, even for me personally I've been a CMO at two different small biotech companies, so I understand their pressures and I understand how that works and I think the task for us is to get in and actually help a small company with problems that they may find difficulty solving. So one of the aspects of an early relationship that I think can be really, really valuable both for us and for them is for us to take the deep experience we have in some aspects of drug development and may be some of the capability that Astra has inside to let's say screen compounds, okay, so they screen our libraries for activity to utilize the deep experience we have let's say in experimental toxicology when you run up against a problem, but I think if we, one of the aspects of partnering that could be very valuable for a small company is to get in very early even before there is an obvious value a valued asset but ones that are in a sort of jewels that need to be polished I suppose and to really build the kind of good scientific relationship, and trusting relationship. There is a lot of value to be had in that and I think and a lot of ways that you can, I think, build trust and capability with your partners that way. Same is true actually I think also in CRO's, if you try to do this experiment 10-years ago you can never have done it, because of a lot of the sort of boutique pharmacology and the difficult science that you need to do in this field was all being done in big companies and now actually through downsizing and other things that have happened in this sort of micro economy it's you can get amazing things on the outside that you could never have accessed before.
Fintan Walton:
Right, so the capabilities of CRO's have improved immensely in the last 10-years?
Michael Poole:
Yes immensely, yes.
Fintan Walton:
So, okay just again because in the end what you are doing here is you are placing money on certain bets, on certain products, that money comes from AstraZeneca, that money can come from as a result of a collaborative arrangement and so forth, do you actually take equity stake in the partner companies that you target?
Michael Poole:
Well we haven't done it to-date, but that wouldn't be off the table, alright, I think that's an arrangement that we surely would consider as part of the way we might do business and I think we'll be interested in any kind of deal structure that really makes sense, I think we'll be a lot more open minded about how we can strike those kinds of deals and what those deals might look like ultimately. I think we'll be interested in doing a lot of risk sharing, not just with small companies but may be with large companies too, to help and move let's say a larger indication that may be more difficult. So I think you can expect to see those kinds of things from us too.
A5 Alliance in Alzheimer's disease
Fintan Walton:
Sure. So Mike, could you give us some examples of some of the actual collaborations you are involved in right now?
Michael Poole:
So one that we are really excited about that actually is aimed at finding new targets and new therapies for Alzheimer's Disease is an alliance that we announced in July called the A5 Alliance [PharmaDeals ID = 47758], A is for, there is four academics and there is Astra so that's the 5A's essentially, and that is, that's a collaboration that's aimed at learning more about the relationship between apolipoprotein E and Alzheimer's pathophysiology. It involves Steve Paul and Robert Appel at the Weill Cornell, Peter Davies at Einstein at the Feinstein Institute, Cheryl Wellington actually at UBC, up in Canada, and David Holtzman and that collaboration is unique because we've actually joined these separate and often kind of disparate groups in academia with some program management and also some direction in funding to actually asked them to focus specifically on this area for locating targets. We find that the whole idea actually fairly exciting because of the importance of the Apo E target, but also because it's a novel collaborative arrangement across multiple academic labs and it's kind of, it's exactly the kind of thing that we think will bring value to a disease area that's as difficult as Alzheimer's.
Does AstraZeneca plan for virtual units in different therapy areas?
Fintan Walton:
Obviously this model could be rolled out across all therapy areas, is this the direction that pharma is going to take now, we are going to end up with more sort of so called virtual units in each of the different therapy areas?
Michael Poole:
That's a good question, I think other companies are looking carefully of what we are doing here. Within AstraZeneca there is no plan to actually expand this out to other therapeutic areas right away and may be never, it depends on how well we do. So we are the beta test you know for the way this will go and I think neuroscience is a little like 'New York, New York' if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. It's a particularly hard therapeutic area and I think if we can show progress in a couple of ways, that is working in new ways and finding new ways for the company to both access companies and academia, and new ideas on the outside in a really in a novel way and in an efficient way, we surely will bring those learning's back to the rest of the organization even if the rest of the company doesn't go virtual and I have no expectations that that would be the case.
Vision over the next five years
Fintan Walton:
Now obviously, you have a leadership role in this and leaders all should have visions and may be you can tell me what your vision is? What's your expectation now for your unit over the next five may be even 10-years?
Michael Poole:
Well I think, I will limit it to five for the moment because that's I think a reasonable goal to have for now, what I would like to see is that we've rebuilt this portfolio in a very robust way that we've got strong both scientific and business partnerships with a broad array of groups, academic, small biotech, mid-size and large biotech and that we are actually making strong advances in disease states that may be we wouldn't have been in last year or even five, five-years ago, let's say, that we've made real progress actually delivering medications. This group is about projects, and projects primarily, we don't have any other sort of driving principle. I've chosen people to work in this group based on experience and also their interest in running projects, if you don't like projects you will hate it in my group and I think people are very happy. I think the truth is that we haven't worked out the business model for this yet, we are kind of building it while we are flying it, but there is a lot of excitement and a lot of resonation with, that resonates with people with a lot of experience, that if you stay focused on the projects and don't let yourself get distracted by too many other things that you can make a lot of progress and make decisions very quickly. So I think quick decision making, flexibility, the willingness to turn where the opportunities when they present themselves and to have a much more flexible sort of investment base is really the foundation for this and I think nobody has a crystal ball here, but I think it's as good an idea as any and better than most actually for how to make this move.
Fintan Walton:
Mike Poole, thank you very much indeed for coming on the show.
Michael Poole:
Thank you very much. Appreciate it.
Fintan Walton
Dr Fintan Walton is the Founder and CEO of PharmaVentures . After completing his doctoral research on the genetics of cell proliferation at the University of Michigan(US)and Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland), Dr Walton gained broad commercial experience in biotechnology in management positions at Bass and Celltech plc (1982-1992).
Michael Poole
Vice President
At the time of recording this PTV interview Michael Poole serves as VP, Head, Neuroscience, Innovative Medicine at AstraZeneca. Dr. Poole most recently held the position of Chief Medical Officer for Link Medicine. In addition to his training as a medical doctor and neurologist, he has held international roles in the pharmaceutical industry and served as Vice President of the Neuroscience Therapy Area at Wyeth and Pfizer. Dr. Poole also served as Chief Medical Officer at Hypnion, a biotechnology company acquired by Lilly in 2006. He brings broad leadership expertise and an impressive track record across the areas of drug discovery and development, regulatory affairs, academia, and venture-funded biotechnology.
PharmaVentures
PharmaVentures is a corporate finance and transactions advisory firm that has served hundreds of clients worldwide in relation to their strategic deal making in the pharmaceutical, life science and healthcare sectors. Our key offerings include: Transactions / deal negotiations; Product / technology valuations; Deal term advice; Due diligence & expert reports; Strategy formulation; Alliance management; and Expert opinion for litigation/arbitration cases. PharmaVentures provides the global expertise to ensure our clients generate the highest possible return on investment from all their deal making activities. We have experience of all therapeutic areas and can offer advice on both product and technology commercialisation.
AstraZeneca
AstraZeneca engages in the discovery, development, and commercialization of prescription medicines for gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neuroscience, respiratory and inflammation, oncology, and infectious diseases worldwide. Its principal products include Atacand for hypertension and heart failure; Crestor for managing cholesterol levels; Nexium for acid reflux; Losec/Prilosec for the treatment of acid related diseases; Seloken/Toprol-XL for hypertension, heart failure, and angina; Seroquel IR for schizophrenia and bipolar disorders; and Seroquel XR for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorders. The company principal products also comprise Symbicort for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases; Synagis for RSV, a respiratory infection in infants; and Zoladex for prostate and breast cancer. In addition, it has 86 pipeline projects, which include 79 projects in various clinical phases of development and 7 approved or launched projects. The company markets its products primarily to primary care and specialist doctors through distributors or local representative offices. AstraZeneca PLC has a strategic partnership with KNODE Inc for the development of web-based solution; and a strategic alliance with Regulus Therapeutics, LLC to discover, develop, and commercialize microRNA therapeutics. The company was formerly known as Zeneca Group PLC and changed its name to AstraZeneca PLC in April 1999. AstraZeneca PLC was founded in 1992 and is headquartered in London, the United Kingdom.